Saturday, November 24, 2007

Does this mean TxDOT will take down all of the 'I-69' signs too?

Someone at TxDOT must have dirty mind

'Forno' vanity plates withheld, called obscene

Nov. 24, 2007

Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2007

Armando Florido said he is about as respectable as you can get — he's been a Houston police officer for 24 years, and has owned and operated Italian restaurants, Fornos of Italy, for 17.

Proud of his eateries, he put vanity plates reading "FORNOS" on his Hummer two years ago. He ordered a second set of plates this year reading "FORNO 1" for a Plymouth Prowler.

The plates are in, and he's even paid for them. But a clerk at the Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector's office told him this week that she could not give them to him.

"She told me she couldn't release them because a TxDOT committee found them obscene," said Florido, a sergeant, on Friday.

A Texas Department of Transportation spokesman said he did not know why Florido was not issued the plates, but would try to find out Friday, a non-working day for the agency. He did not call back.

"We don't know why TxDOT found this obscene," Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt said. "All of a sudden, a letter showed up from TxDOT saying, 'Don't give him the plates.' We've run into some preposterous layer of bureaucracy."

In Italian, "forno" means oven or furnace.

"I just don't know why my plates and business name were found obscene," Florido said.

Bettencourt said his office will see what it can do for Florido next week.

"The man should get his plates," Bettencourt said. "And, if not, he should at least get his money back."

© 2007 Houston Chronicle:

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Friday, November 23, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving from the Governor's Mansion

Trans-Texas Turkey

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Thursday, November 22, 2007

"Most of the early 'public meetings' have not been advertised to the public but are for a select audience often called 'stakeholders'..."


In my own mind and heart I am a stakeholder. Are you?


Martha Estes
Waxahachie Daily Blog
Copyright 2007

Do you have a stake in this? In February 2008 you will have a chance to answer that question by "walking the walk".

TxDOT and the Texas Transportation Commission have recently "found" themselves a $9 million dollar budget to "educate the citizens of Texas" about the Trans Texas Corridor 69.

Mind you, their intentions remain the SAME and 9 million dollars buys a lot of lipstick to put on that TTC pig!! That cosmetic process is underway with a series of radio spots, briefings, and town hall meetings along the proposed TTC-69 route through about 650 miles of Texas and into Louisiana.

Most of the early "public meetings" have not been advertised to the public but are for a select audience which generally includes some elected county and municipal officials, chamber of commerce members, economic development council members, and similar individuals who are often called stakeholders by TxDOT.

In my own mind and heart I am a stakeholder. Are you? At stake for me is my homestead and ranch and my sense of what real transportation solutions and private property rights ought to be in Texas.

I have not been invited to any of these previews. Have you? Ads have not appeared in local papers announcing them.

Decide whether you think something of importance is at stake. And mark your calendar in FEBRUARY 2008. February will bring TTC-69 DEIS Hearings in locations along the narrowed TTC-69 route across Texas and into Louisiana. In 2005 there were 37 Hearings with multiple routes. The schedule of dates and sites is pending. You can attend as many as you like regardless of your home address. One Waller County site has been confirmed for February 27th at the Waller High School.

On Tuesday, November 13th TxDOT revealed online a TTC-69 DEIS map [CLICK HERE]which shows the narrowed path to be studied further for a final corridor. Related information about the process and resources are also online. Within a few more days the map and related information are to be provided to some public libraries and Regional TxDOT offices listed online now. Find a way to access the map and information. Get your friends and neighbors to do the same.

I met many fine Texas citizens as I proudly stood with them in the trenches at six of the TTC-35 hearings. I hope to see many of them in February in counties across Texas. The issues are the same.. wherever it is that you call home.

Martha Estes


Louisiana and Texas Public Libraries List [CLICK HERE]

TxDOT Regional Offices where the DEIS TTC-69 map and materials are available for examination. [CLICK HERE]

Copyright 2007 Waxahachie Daily Blog:

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Droning towards a police state?

Local 2 Investigates Police Secrecy Behind Unmanned Aircraft Test

November 21, 2007

By Stephen Dean
KPRC Channel 2 (Houston, TX)
Copyright 2007

WALLER COUNTY, Texas -- Houston police started testing unmanned aircraft and the event was shrouded in secrecy, but it was captured on tape by Local 2 Investigates.

Neighbors in rural Waller County said they thought a top-secret military venture was under way among the farmland and ranches, some 70 miles northwest of Houston. KPRC Local 2 Investigates had four hidden cameras aimed at a row of mysterious black trucks. Satellite dishes and a swirling radar added to the neighbors' suspense.

Then, cameras were rolling as an unmanned aircraft was launched into the sky and operated by remote control.

Houston police cars were surrounding the land with a roadblock in place to check each of the dignitaries arriving for the invitation-only event. The invitation spelled out, "NO MEDIA ALLOWED."

HPD Chief Harold Hurtt attended, along with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and dozens of officers from various police agencies in the Houston area. Few of the guests would comment as they left the test site.

News Chopper 2 had a Local 2 Investigates team following the aircraft for more than one hour as it circled overhead. Its wings spanned 10 feet and it circled at an altitude of 1,500 feet. Operators from a private firm called Insitu, Inc. manned remote controls from inside the fleet of black trucks as the guests watched a live feed from the high-powered camera aboard the 40-pound aircraft.

"I wasn't ready to publicize this," Executive Assistant Police Chief Martha Montalvo said. She and other department leaders hastily organized a news conference when they realized Local 2 Investigates had captured the entire event on camera.

"We still haven't even decided how we were going to go forward on this task, so it seemed premature to me to announce this to the media," Montalvo said. "But since, obviously, the media found out about it, then I don't see any reason why just not go forward with what we have so far."

Montalvo told reporters the unmanned aircraft would be used for "mobility" or traffic issues, evacuations during storms, homeland security, search and rescue, and also "tactical." She admitted that could include covert police actions and she said she was not ruling out someday using the drones for writing traffic tickets.

A large number of the officers at the test site were assigned to the department's ticket-writing Radar Task Force. Capt. Tom Runyan insisted they were only there to provide "site security," even though KPRC cameras spotted those officers heavily participating in the test flight.

Houston police contacted KPRC from the test site, claiming the entire airspace was restricted by the Federal Aviation Administration. Police even threatened action from the FAA if the Local 2 helicopter remained in the area. However, KPRC reported it had already checked with the FAA on numerous occasions and found no flight restrictions around the site, a point conceded by Montalvo.

HPD leaders said they would address privacy and unlawful search questions later.

South Texas College of Law professor Rocky Rhodes, who teaches the constitution and privacy issues, said, "One issue is going to be law enforcement using this and when, by using these drones, are they conducting a search in which they'd need probable cause or a warrant. If the drones are being used to get into private spaces and be able to view where the government cannot otherwise go, and to collect information that would not otherwise be able to collect, that's concerning to me."

HPD Assistant Chief Vickie King said of the unmanned aircraft, "It's interesting that privacy doesn't occur or searches aren't an issue when you have a helicopter pilot over you and it would not be used in airspace other than what our helicopters are used in already."

She admitted that police helicopters are not equipped with cameras nearly as powerful as the unmanned aircraft, but she downplayed any privacy concerns, saying news helicopters have powerful cameras as well.

HPD stressed it is working with the FAA on reviewing the technical specifications, the airworthiness and hazards of flying unmanned aircraft in an urban setting. Future test flights are planned.

The price tag for an unmanned aircraft ranges from $30,000 to $1 million each and HPD is hoping to begin law enforcement from the air by June of 2008 with these new aircraft.

If you have a news tip or question for KPRC Local 2 Investigates, drop them an e-mail or call their tipline at (713) 223-TIPS (8477).

© 2007 KPRC TV:

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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

"$3.5 to $4 billion... Lotsa moolah, all of it comin’ out of your pocket, one way or the other."

Michael Morris, King of the Roads

Wed Nov 21, 2007

Jim Shutze
The Dallas Observer
Copyright 2007

Michael Morris sighting this morning. I want to read it into the record. Morris, of course, is my least favorite local politician. Nothing personal. Morris is "transportation director" for a government agency I bet you've barely ever heard of -- the North Central Texas Council of Governments (or NCTCOG).

He isn't elected, has way too much power and tries to pretend like he's not a politician. I wish all the wing-nuts who waste their time worrying about the New World Order would re-direct their paranoid talents to NCTCOG. Some conspiracies are real and much closer to home.

O.K., watch out. We have three obscure government agencies to keep track of here: The NCTCOG, whom you have already met; the North Texas Tollway Authority (or NTTA), which is the regional toll road agency; and the Texas Department of Transportation (or TxDOT), the state highway department. Got your acronyms down?

My new favorite reporter, Michael Lindenberger, has a story in today's Dallas Morning News about a big dispute between TxDOT and NTTA over the State Highway 121 toll road project. Let me cut to the chase.

These two agencies are fighting over a sum of money -- $3.5 to $4 billion -- that represents the second biggest total ticket for a toll road project in the nation's history, according to Lindenberger. Lotsa moolah, all of it comin’ out of your pocket, one way or the other.

Morris, according to Lindenberger, is "acting as facilitator as negotiations between NTTA and TxDOT continue."

The man in the driver's seat!

Morris, a government employee, showed up a lot during the Trinity River toll road debate making blatantly political stump speeches in favor of the toll road project during the run-up to our recent citywide referendum.

When there's money on the table, he and NCTCOG operate like a local political party. Then the minute the deal gets done, they duck back inside their turtle shell, protected by their relative anonymity as a little-known regional agency dealing in technical matters that are opaque to most voters.

Another way to put it: When the traffic lights go out, nobody calls Michael Morris and threatens to vote him out of office. What office? What phone? What Michael Morris?

And yet he and NCTCOG are making huge and fundamental decisions about how we are supposed to live and die in this whole region, almost always in favor of cars, sprawl and profit for the road-builders.

In Lindenberger's story, Morris crows about how all the money he and NCTCOG intend to squeeze out of toll road projects will help this region buck a national urban trend and keep building more roads, instead of taxing congestion to get people out of their cars the way the nation’s leading cities are doing. In this way, NCTCOG works to keep Dallas way behind the curve.

"Most states are in the maintenance business," he says, "but thanks to this innovative approach in Dallas-Fort Worth, we're in the capacity-building business."

Yeah, but, uh, Mr. Morris, here in the city, we just went through a big political process, called forwardDallas!, in which we decided we wanted fewer roads and more transit-oriented development. Then again, that was before you guys jumped into the Trinity thing and helped get another road project passed for the posse.

So who are we to talk?

I just wonder this: Here's this guy and this agency who can overrule city government. Is there anybody at NCTCOG who's ever gotten elected dog-catcher?

© 2007 The Dallas Observer:

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"Most states around the country are in the maintenance business... we're in the capacity-building business."

NTTA borrows $3.49 billion for toll project

State Highway 121 money may first go to State Highway 161

November 21, 2007

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2007

The North Texas Tollway Authority borrowed $3.49 billion Tuesday as it prepares to make the second-biggest upfront cash payment for a toll project in U.S. history.

The money, secured by short-term notes that will be replaced by long-term bonds early next year, will be used to pay nearly $3.3 billion to the state of Texas. In exchange, NTTA will build and operate State Highway 121 as a toll road, running about 26 miles through Denton and Collin counties, with a tiny segment in Dallas County.

NTTA is required to make the payments to the state by Nov. 30, officials at the toll authority said Tuesday.

The money – second only to Indiana's receipt of $3.8 billion in return for granting a private firm a 75-year lease to collect tolls on the Indiana Toll Road – will be available for immediate use to build North Texas roads.

The NTTA also will pay nearly $700 million in remaining construction costs for the road. Local governments have already submitted hundreds of proposals for projects to be paid for out of the funds, though final selections by the North Central Texas Council of Government's transportation council won't be made until early next year.

The regional council initially planned to save about $800 million of the NTTA money as a kind of endowment, with only its interest income to be spent on road projects. Instead, that $800 million will probably be used as a reserve fund to lend money to projects that are ready to go but are awaiting funding.

One of the first uses for the Highway 121 money could be on State Highway 161 in Dallas County, a road that long has been touted as the second-richest toll road in North Texas.

The Texas Transportation Commission has said that NTTA and Texas Department of Transportation's Dallas-area engineers have until Dec. 21 to reach an agreement on how to value the road as a toll project. If that deadline is missed, the road would be built as a free road, using money from NTTA that had been earmarked for other uses, said Michael Morris, transportation director for the Regional Transportation Council.

Mr. Morris is acting as a facilitator as negotiations between NTTA and TxDOT continue. On Tuesday, he and NTTA officials said the talks would continue throughout the holiday weekend and into next month.

The talks resumed Monday, following last week's decision by Ric Williamson, chairman of the state transportation commission, to impose the Dec. 21 deadline. No agreement has been reached, both parties said Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Mr. Morris said, the region owes its flexibility on how to proceed with Highway 161 entirely to the success of the Highway 121 project. The upfront money NTTA is about to pay for that road will pay dividends on projects for years to come, he said.

"Most states around the country are in the maintenance business," Mr. Morris said, citing the increasingly strapped highway coffers in state capitals everywhere. "But thanks to this innovative approach in Dallas-Fort Worth, we're in the capacity-building business."

© 2007 The Dallas Morning News Co

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'Hearts and minds in the right place' ?

Tollway authority promises to meet deadline on Texas 161


Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2007

PLANO -- North Texas Tollway Authority officials vowed Tuesday to finish negotiations over the long-term value of the proposed Texas 161 toll road by a Dec. 21 deadline, a step considered crucial to getting it open in time for the 2011 Super Bowl in Arlington.

"We're going to meet as much as is necessary. ... We will be meeting over the holiday weekend," tollway authority executive director Jorge Figueredo said. "We agreed to do this with our hearts and minds in the right place."

Texas 161 would run parallel to Texas 360, connecting Texas 183 in Irving to Interstate 20 in Grand Prairie.

Last week, Texas Department of Transportation officials warned that the tollway authority would not be given a chance to build Texas 161 unless the two agencies agreed upon the long-term value of the road by Dec. 21. At the time, Figueredo worried that his agency wouldn't have time to study traffic modeling data.

State law gives the tollway authority first dibs on building the road, which planners say is needed to relieve north-south traffic and could generate hundreds of millions of dollars in toll revenue for other road work. Negotiations over the long-term value, which would determine how much the tollway authority pays upfront to collect tolls for 50 years, have dragged on for months.

The North Central Texas Council of Governments is serving as a mediator of sorts in hopes of getting the bureaucratic work completed.

In other action Tuesday, tollway board members:
Unanimously picked board member Bill Meadows of Fort Worth as vice chairman. Chairman Paul Wageman is from Plano. Board member Alan Sims of Cedar Hill said it's important to give the western Metroplex a leadership role. Several projects are planned in the Fort Worth area, including Southwest Parkway.
Learned that bond anticipation notes totaling nearly $3.5 billion were sold Tuesday morning for yet another project -- the Texas 121 toll road north of Grapevine. The move signals that the tollway authority can close the deal by a Dec. 1 deadline.

After closing, officials said, the tollway authority will pay more than $3 billion upfront to the Transportation Department and the Regional Transportation Council for use on other transportation projects.

GORDON DICKSON, 817-685-3816

© 2007 Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

"We're going to be the toll road capitol of the world."

TxDOT looks to managed lanes on MoPac

November 20, 2007

KVUE News (Austin, TX)
Copyright 2007

Next to Interstate 35, MoPac is the busiest road in Central Texas -- and often one of the most congested. But how to you improve traffic flow on a road that's bordered by a rail line on one side and neighborhoods on the other?

The Texas Department of Transportation is hoping that managed lanes may literally pave the way to life in the fast lane on MoPac.

"Ultimately if we're going to solve the problem, we've got to do it ourselves, " said Brandon Janes, vice chair of the Austin chamber of commerce and the head of its Take On Traffic initiative. "The alternative is the region chokes on it's traffic and that's unacceptable."

If choking on traffic is unacceptable or if simple indigestion from the congestion is enough to make you ask whether there's a better way -- you'll be happy to know the folks at TxDOT and the Austin chamber's Take On Traffic Initiative say they have a plan. It calls for one additional lane to be added in each direction along MoPac. Drivers would be charged to use those lanes. It's called congestion pricing or managed lanes.

"Managed lanes provide us the ability to not only allow carpools and bus transit, but also to allow drivers to get on the same roadway, but at a price," said TxDOT spokesman Marcus Cooper.

That price would fluctuate depending on the time of day or traffic on the road -- thus the name "congestion pricing." It's similar to a high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane. The only difference -- you don't have to have a car full of passengers to drive on it -- single occupancy vehicles can drive on it too -- for a fee. Besides the amount of traffic on the road, the price you pay is also based on each mile you drive. A sign at each access point will alert drivers to the cost.

Sound like a good idea to you?

"I don't like the idea," said Fabian Arocha, driver.

"Some of us are willing to pay to get there quicker," said Lane Wilson, driver.

"We pay enough taxes towards this city that we shouldn't have to pay to get on a road to get to another part of town," said Sandra Reyes, driver. "Up until 7 o'clock workdays, it's really bad. So, they need something."

"It would relieve a lot of congestion, and I wouldn't mind paying the toll," said Gina Dunn, driver.

TxDOT and city leaders traveled to San Diego recently to get a first hand view of the congestion pricing and managed lanes used on Interstate 15. They came away convinced it's the most effective way to alleviate much of the congestion on MoPac.

"There is no adequate alternative to adding a couple of lanes. Because you can't go down, you've got the railroad railway in the middle, you've got neighborhoods on either side. This is about as much as you can do on MoPac," Janes said.

"'Managed lanes' is just another word for toll lanes," said Sal Costello, the founder of He's not convinced managed lanes are the solution.

"What they're doing is they're using our tax dollars and using our right of way. They need to add the lanes but not have us pay for them and pay for them again," Costello said.

The cost is at the heart of every road construction project these days. TxDOT claims that because of limited federal funding and the fact the gas tax hasn't been raised in Texas since 1991, it simply does not have the funds to meet the traffic demands of Central Texas. And if our current traffic woes are to be corrected now, tolls are the only way to cover those construction costs. It also points out that the bulk of the $100 million MoPac managed lanes project isn't for road construction or re-striping -- it's to cover the cost of concrete sound barriers.

"The neighborhoods have insisted they entitled to sound barriers," Janes said.

Costello says TxDOT should add an additional lane in each direction along MoPac but make them free lanes.

"We can move a lot more traffic by having these as free lanes" Costello said.

But Janes countered, "If you add an additional so called free lane or gas tax lane, it will become as jammed as the others."

Phase one of the managed lanes project would run from Parmer Lane to Cesar Chavez, with limited entrance and exit points. Phase two would extend the MoPac managed lanes from State Highway 45 north to Slaughter Lane. TxDOT is still gathering environmental data and public input. If approved, construction could begin in the spring of 2009.

"We're going to be the toll road capitol of the world," Costello said

"Normal Joes take it if you’re in a hurry and you have to be someplace. It's like buying a $4 cup of coffee. It's convenient and people do it," Janes said.

© 2007 KVUE:

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Fort Worth Startlegram advocates toll road conversion Ponzi scheme

How's the traffic looking on Texas 161?

Nov. 20, 2007

Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2007

Look at it as the latest skirmish in the Texas toll road wars:

Negotiators for the Texas Department of Transportation and the North Texas Tollway Authority sat down Monday in an Arlington conference room, trying to reach agreement on extending Texas 161 as a toll road between Texas 183 in Irving and Interstate 20 in Grand Prairie.

The project is buried in tension. It's a test of whether the Texas Transportation Commission can make progress on its strategy of using toll road revenue to finance construction of other highways. It's also a test of whether NTTA, as a public body, can maintain its role as the region's primary toll road agency -- and whether it can even afford to do so.

Anyone who has trouble seeing the impact of this road on Tarrant County should think again. Texas 161 would take pressure off of congested Texas 360, now the primary north-south route in the middle of the Metroplex. It must be started soon if it is to be completed for the 2009 opening of the Dallas Cowboys stadium in Arlington and the 2011 Super Bowl. And regional and state transportation officials must get over the Texas 161 hurdle before they can turn their attention to other crucial projects, such as the Southwest Parkway and its extension into Johnson County.

At a meeting last week, Commission Chairman Ric Williamson of Weatherford set a deadline of Dec. 21 for a basic agreement on business assumptions for the Texas 161 project. That deadline adds more tension, but it can be met. The two parties must get this project moving.

Many other tasks must be accomplished before construction can start, but Williamson is right to press for speed in these initial negotiations. It is not yet certain whether NTTA will take on the project or whether the right to build it will be sold to a private company. Or the road could be built with state, regional and federal funds and operated as a non-toll highway.

The current negotiations focus on basic business terms -- things such as how many drivers would be expected to use the road at different toll rates, how much those rates could be increased over time and how much revenue the toll road builder/operator would share. Williamson says he wants those questions answered by Dec. 21.

Still to come would be decisions on how to combine those factors into a model that would be used to establish the road's market value. Then NTTA has to decide whether to build the project or pass on it.

It's easy to say that drivers would prefer a free road to a toll road. But if, as Williamson insists, the state needs the revenue from toll roads so that it can afford to build more highways, current projections show that Texas 161 is a good candidate for tolls.
Let's get it started, ASAP.
Political tension

For NTTA: Powerful area legislators went to bat for NTTA earlier this year, forcing the Transportation Department to reopen bidding for the Texas 121 toll road project in Denton and Collin counties so that NTTA could take part. That intervention, primarily by state Sens. Florence Shapiro of Plano and John Carona of Dallas, eventually allowed NTTA to win the project. Although all parties publicly put on a happy face, it was a considerable embarrassment for Williamson and department officials, who had said that the project should be awarded to Cintra, a Spanish company.

Spending political capital on power plays like that always comes at a cost. If NTTA can't successfully negotiate for Texas 161, it could embarrass Shapiro and Carona. For the Transportation Department: The Legislature is breathing down Williamson's neck -- and by proxy the neck of the man who appointed him, Gov. Rick Perry -- on the toll road issue. Everybody agrees that the state must build more highways to reduce traffic congestion and improve air quality. But numerous lawmakers don't buy the argument that the only way to get the money to do that is to sell off some projects as toll roads.

In this year's session, legislators put a two-year moratorium on new toll road agreements, with exceptions that included Texas 161.

In the 2009 session, the Transportation Department will undergo "sunset review," a process by which the Legislature examines state agencies in great depth and decides whether to continue them or make fundamental changes.

Williamson and his fellow commissioners will be far better off going into that review with some toll road success stories under their belts. A failure on Texas 161 could hurt them.
Financial tension

For NTTA: The authority has just completed its financing plan for the Texas 121 project, for which it borrowed $3.75 billion. It must pay $3.3 billion of that to the state for the right to build the road. Yes, that's billion, with a b.

The elephant in the corner of the room during the Texas 161 negotiations will be how much more NTTA can afford to pay. Will financial markets be willing to back it on yet another huge project? NTTA officials say yes, no problem.

Still, NTTA has to be pushing for the lowest cost it can get.

For the Transportation Department: Texas 161 is a valuable project, and the state needs highway money desperately. By law, any gains from this project must be used for others in the North Texas region, and some of those roads won't pay their way even as toll roads. That includes an extension of Texas 170 near Fort Worth Alliance Airport and a southern extension of Texas 360.

The Transportation Department has to be pushing for as much money from Texas 161 as it can get.

Worst-case scenario?

If the current negotiations fall apart and NTTA and the Transportation Department can't agree on basic business terms or the market value for Texas 161, current law would block the state from building the highway as a toll road. That would mean the loss of the $1 billion or more that state officials believe they could get for the road, and that other dollars used for it would not be available for other roads.

Texas 160 would end up being a free road, but other parts of the region would still suffer traffic congestion.

Out-of-the-box outcome?

There's an outside chance that these negotiations could produce a result other than the black-or-white, free-or-toll, NTTA-or-not choice. For example, the state or the Regional Transportation Commission, the planning body for local highway and transit projects, could become a partner in a Texas 161 toll road. That would enable NTTA to participate at a lower cost while sharing the revenue.

© 2007 Fort Worth Star-Telegrams:

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“A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it the superficial appearance of being right.”

MPO a “front” for toll road builders

TURF files injunction to stop MPO’s Dec 3 vote to approve toll rates

November 19, 2007

by Terri Hall
Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF)
Copyright 2007

San Antonio, TX, – From the steps of the John Wood U.S. Federal District Court in Bexar County, TURF announced its motion seeking an injunction against the San Antonio Metropolitan Planning Organization (SAMPO) for violating the citizens Constitutional rights (in the First and 14th amendments) and hijacking the Board to benefit road contractors.

“By filing this injunction today, we hope to put transportation decisions back in the hands of the people,” said Terri Hall, Founder/Director of the grassroots group TURF.

TURF is asking the court to intervene before December 3 where SAMPO is to vote to approve the financial terms (toll rates and rate increases) for the US 281 toll project as well as to shift yet more tax money to building toll lanes on EXISTING corridors, amounting to a TRIPLE TAX (once for what’s already there, a second for building the toll lanes, and a third toll tax).

TxDOT is keeping vital financial information on the 281 toll project SECRET ahead of the MPO’s vote to approve the financial terms. Board members are being asked to vote on information that has NOT been disclosed, including whether or not a non-compete agreement will prevent free roads surrounding the 281 toll lanes from being expanded.

MPO Board members State Representative David Leibowitz and Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson submitted affidavits (see links below) to the court with ample evidence to prove the MPO has violated the First Amendment and 14th Amendment as it relates to citizens opposed to toll roads.

TURF attorney David Van Os described the actions of the MPO this way: “The self-serving business interests that will reap huge profits off toll roads are manipulating the processes of the MPO to stack the deck against those opposed to tolls. They’re keeping their voices from even being heard which violates their Constitutional rights.”

Adkisson, who has been prevented from representing his constituents’ opposition to toll roads by the MPO’s bullying tactics used Thomas Paine’s words to describe the corrupt practices at the MPO, “A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it the superficial appearance of being right.”

He went on to object to unelected members of the MPO serving on the Board which, in effect, dilutes the votes of elected officials. “Unelected members aren’t accountable at the ballot box,” said Adkisson.

The injunction seeks to halt all activity of the SAMPO Board until it’s reconfigured to have only elected officials with voting powers. TURF’s lawsuit against the SAMPO was originally filed on October 22 and TURF is now seeking an injunction as the next step in that lawsuit to force the unconstitutional composition of SAMPO to be re-configured to have only elected officials with voting powers.

SAMPO allocates tax dollars to transportation projects in Bexar County and approves toll rates and toll projects. The lawsuit alleges that the composition of the SAMPO Board is unconstitutional and Chairwoman Sheila McNeil has been a party to denying the First Amendment right of free speech to the constituents of elected MPO Board members like State Representative David Leibowitz by blocking an agenda item and any debate on an issue brought up at his request (read about it in his affidavit, link below).

TURF recently scored a victory in STATE COURT in a different lawsuit against members of the Texas Transportation Department and Transportation Commission.

Read TURF's motion for preliminary injunction here.

Links to affidavits below:

State Representative David Leibowitz

Commissioner Tommy Adkisson

TURF Founder Terri Hall

© 2007 TURF:

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"This is one of the most bedrock issues of life in a representative democracy."

Toll road foes file to stop vote


Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2007

Toll critics Monday fired a torpedo at a coming toll-road vote by filing a request for a temporary court injunction.

The Dec. 3 vote by the Metropolitan Planning Organization to sign off on toll rates for a proposed U.S. 281 tollway is a must before construction can start next summer.

If the toll road opens in 2012 as planned, with express lanes running from Loop 1604 to either Marshall Road or Comal County, fees could start at 17 cents a mile for cars and rise with consumer inflation.

The request for the injunction on MPO votes is connected to a lawsuit filed in federal court last month over whether the public is represented fairly in the move toward toll roads. It calls for booting non-elected officials from the board and stopping Chairwoman Sheila McNeil, a San Antonio City Council member, from blocking agenda items or motions.

"This is one of the most bedrock issues of life in a representative democracy," attorney David Van Os, who represents Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom, said Monday.

Toll advocates say the lawsuit is frivolous and that freezing MPO votes would only slow down needed toll projects.

"With traffic levels effectively doubling every six years along these high-growth corridors, we cannot afford to wait any longer," said Vic Boyer of the San Antonio Mobility Coalition, a government and business group that includes highway and engineering companies.

The MPO declined to comment, but its attorney, Howard Newton, filed a motion last week to dismiss the lawsuit, saying the 19 board members represent the county, city and government agencies that appointed them and not voters.

Critics say non-elected officials on the board simply parrot their elected bosses serving on the same board, which essentially stacks the votes.

"Every time, the citizens lose out when you have unelected people that are making these decisions, because they don't answer to the people," TURF founder Terri Hall said.

Hall says $325 million in public funds earmarked for local tollways should instead be used to fix the worse traffic spots without adding tolls.

But that money has to be matched with local funds, according to a Texas Department of Transportation policy.

The Alamo Regional Mobility Authority plans to come up with the match by selling $1 billion worth of bonds to add toll lanes to U.S. 281 and Loop 1604. Toll fees would pay for the bonds.

Besides setting U.S. 281 toll rates in two weeks, the MPO board would also consider shifting more public funds to U.S. 281 — to $112 million from $69 million — to double the tollway from 4 to 8 miles.

© 2007 San Antonio Express-News:

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Just one week after the NTTA raises toll rates, it's 'Good night, Vienna!'

NTTA Execs Skip Out On Pricey Conference On Your $


Bennett Cunningham Reporting
(CBS 11 News)
Copuyright 2007

Vienna, AUSTRIA ― While you were stuck in rush hour traffic, some North Texas Tollway Authority officials were flying first class to another continent, sampling fine foods and wine in the crown jewel of Europe.

Just one week after the NTTA raised the toll rates, it sent 5 representatives to the 75th Annual International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association conference in Vienna, Austria.

"We did not raise rates for our travel budget," said the newly hired NTTA Executive Director Jorge Figueredo.

The price tag for the IBTTA conference: $42,500, of your toll money to learn how to build more toll roads.

A CBS 11 News crew followed the NTTA representatives to see if consumers were getting their money's worth.

Several of the NTTA representatives were able to stretch out on the long flight to Vienna, enjoying first and business class seats at a cost of more than $7,000 a ticket. Those representatives were NTTA CFO Susan Buse, Director of Project Evaluation Department Jerry Shelton and Governor Appointed Board Member Robert Shepard.

Tollway policy allows these people to pick business class over coach for international travel, an expense typically 10 times the price of a typical coach seat.

NTTA paid approximately $600 per person to register for the conference and nearly $300 per night for a room at the 4-star Vienna Hilton. Some NTTA representatives brought their wives.

NTTA officials enjoyed lavish parties in a 150-year-old castle, feasting on handcrafted chocolates and sipping Austrian wine. One night, representatives were serenaded by the Vienna Boys Choir.

All of these lavish parties were sponsored by past or current tollway vendors like HNTB, Wilbur Smith Inc., and the executive director's former employer PBS&J. Some of these companies still do business with officials.

Figueredo feels the 5,000 mile trip was critical for the NTTA "to understand the global market as we compete in North Texas."

On the first morning of the conference, everyone attended the meetings. But after that, our cameras caught some members playing hooky.

Two members of the NTTA board of directors, Dave Denison and Bob Shepard, skipped out on late morning meetings. Both men chose to window-shop on the Vienna streets.

Denison, who didn't use a cane on day one, stopped to purchase a souvenir walking stick. For nearly 2 hours, while their toll road colleagues sat in conferences paid for by NTTA users, these men strolled the shopping district of Vienna.

One of the sessions they missed was a discussion on future possibilities of toll road partnerships and planning. The presenter was NTTA Deputy Executive Director Rick Herrington.

Dennison and Shepherd did make it back to the hotel just in time for a fully catered lunch.

When confronted with the video of board members playing hooky, Figueredo said, "I'm disappointed. There is a culture I want to instill in this place that hasn't taken root yet." He refused to elaborate or describe the current culture at the NTTA that he is trying to change.

After the gourmet lunch, board member Denison skipped meetings and, with his new walking stick, gazed upon the beauty of Vienna's famous Stadtpark. For more than an hour, he walked down the tree line boulevards of old Vienna. He made it back the hotel toward the end of the day.

That evening, everyone, including Denison and Shepard, attended a fancy dinner party sponsored by NTTA expansion contractor Wilbur Smith Inc. The venue was at the Old Vienna Stock Exchange, a beautiful building with a huge staircase leading to a grand ballroom.

If the hooky playing wasn't bad on day 2, day 3 was worse. Our cameras caught the two board members, their wives and Deputy Executive Director Rick Herrington skipping out of the hotel at 7:30 a.m. to travel out of the country to Bratislava, Slovakia.

Cameras caught them boarding a bus to head out for the entire day, skipping all the conference events. According to the tour guide, they enjoyed a castle tour and plenty of time for shopping.

Eight hours later, they returned, not via a bus, but a high speed boat up the Danube River. They missed every session that day, including one on fighting congestion and a tour of the Austrian toll way.

A few hours later, they all attended a dinner party as conference participants celebrated the end to 4 days of learning about toll ways.

When asked if the NTTA would ask for some of the money back from the conference, Figueredo said, "That thought never crossed my mind."

Figueredo did reduce the number of people going to Austria. But the result was thousands of dollars in non-refundable airline tickets and non-refundable registration fees. Figueredo is appealing for a refund of the registration fees with the conference executives.

CBS11 contacted a majority of IBTTA members in the United States and most did not go to Vienna. Officials at the famed New Jersey Turnpike said, "We can do more work here than in Vienna."

When asked what his people learned from the toll road conference and trip to Vienna, Figueredo said he couldn't provide a detailed answer.

The NTTA tells CBS11 that it did not pay for the airfare for any of the wives of representatives.

Governor Rick Perry commented on the story stating, "The Governor expects any official who operates in the public trust to act in good faith and use good judgment when deciding to attend conferences or other meetings or other similar meetings."

The State Auditors Offices told CBS11 that it has no jurisdiction or oversight over the NTTA. Since the State of Texas created the NTTA, lawmakers are the only ones who can do anything to curtail control of the Authority.

© 2007 CBS Broadcasting Inc.:

"The streets of Vienna are paved with culture, the streets of other cities with asphalt."--Karl Kraus

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Monday, November 19, 2007

"When you've got a body with a majority of unelected members voting on this, they're not going to vote to take themselves out on this final decision."

Injunction Sought To Stop Toll Rates Vote

TURF Files Lawsuit In Federal Court

November 19, 2007 (San Antonio, TX)
Copyright 2007

SAN ANTONIO -- An anti-toll group filed a petition in federal court Monday seeking a injunction to prevent a vote on toll rates.

Members of Texans United for Reform and Freedom held a news conference in front of the federal courthouse in San Antonio to announce the filing of the lawsuit.

TURF founder and executive director Terri Hall said the legal action is needed to stop a Dec. 3 vote by the San Antonio Metropolitan Planning Organization on toll rates for Highway 281.

The lawsuit also aims to prevent all activity by the board until it's reconfigured to have only elected officials. Currently, the board is appointed.

"This board is broken. And the only way to fix it, we think, is to have a court step in and force a change because we've tried everything else," Hall said. "And frankly, when you've got a body that's got a majority of unelected members that are voting on this, of course they're not going to vote to take themselves out of the running for a vote on this final decision."

Hall also said that the Texas Department of Transportation is keeping other important financial aspects of the toll road project from MPO board members prior to the vote.

An MPO attorney didn't want to comment on the lawsuit, saying he hadn't had time to review it.

© 2007

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TxDOT thinks it "imperative that they create the crisis so that you can solve the crisis their way."

Lawmakers Differ on TxDOT Budget Cuts

November 19, 2007

by Harvey Kronberg
The Quorum Report
Copyright 2007

Key Senators say the cuts reflect transpoortation funding crunch, a House member says TxDOT using cuts to get their way on private toll roads.

TxDOT announced last week that it was proposing significant cutbacks in spending, mostly in what the agency spends on engineering consultants and acquisitions of right of way for future highway projects.

The logic is that with the federal government taking back transportation funds (what is known in the bureaucratic jargon as rescissions), the rising costs of construction materials and the increasing inadequacy of the motor fuels tax, many highway projects currently on the books simply won’t get built. So if no new funding is in the offing soon, TxDOT argues that it doesn'’t make sense to hire those engineers or to buy that right of way.

In the Legislature, lawmakers who were active in the highway funding debate last session were alternately dismayed or allayed by TxDOT’'s proposal.

House Appropriations Chairman Rep. Warren Chisum (R-Pampa) said he received no word of the impending cuts, claiming that he didn'’t know anything about them until a reporter called him for reaction. Chisum said such a move was "typical TxDOT. They don’t tell anybody anything; they just do what they want to do."

Rep. Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham), author of the original amendment last session placing a two-year moratorium on public-private toll road partnerships, told QR that she, too, was not notified of TxDOT’s proposed cuts.

Kolkhorst was skeptical of TxDOT'’s stated motivation for the cuts. She said that she thought the transportation agency was trying to put the squeeze on lawmakers to force them toward public-private toll partnerships.

The agency thinks it "imperative that they create the crisis so that you can solve the crisis their way," she said. She added that the Texas 161 project in Dallas County was another example of TxDOT creating a crisis to force a resolution favorable to its position in favor of expanded private equity.

TxDOT and the local tollway authority, the North Texas Tollway Authority, are locked over how to come up with an agreed value of the toll project. SB 792 gives NTTA first shot at the project, but the two sides must agree on the value of the project. NTTA is accusing TxDOT of not sharing the methodology by which it puts a value on the project.

Time is ticking toward a Dec. 21 deadline. According to a Dallas Morning News report, TxDOT is threatening to yank the project as a toll project. That would force local transportation money to be used on Texas 161 instead of on other projects. NTTA said that the cost of such a decision could run up to $1 billion.

Kolkhorst suggested that TxDOT is using the market valuation provision to set up local tollway authorities to fail and not be able to take these high value transportation projects. She said that she expected lawmakers to respond at the committee level to the proposed budget cuts.

Two Senators contacted by QR, though, don’'t share Kolkhorst’s view of the cuts. Both John Carona (R-Dallas) and Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville) said they were made aware of the cuts before they were proposed last week.

Carona, chairman of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee, agreed with the shift in funding to road maintenance given the federal funding climate and the constant erosion of the motor fuels tax’ purchasing power. "You have to take care of the maintenance," said Steven Polunsky, director of the Senate Transportation Committee, adding that the state can'’t afford to have a tragedy on the scale of the Minneapolis bridge collapse.

TxDOT is not to blame for the funding shortfall that is spurring the cuts, Polunsky said. "If it’'s a manufactured crisis, the factory was the Legislature over the past several sessions," he said. "(Carona) would not be advocating indexing fuel taxes if that was not the case."

Nichols, a former state Transportation Commissioner, agreed with Carona that TxDOT was being above board with its proposed cuts. The problem that TxDOT faces, he said, is that "people don'’t want to believe the truth that we have a tremendous funding shortage."

What TxDOT really needs is for lawmakers to provide a dependable funding system, Nichols said. One of the "backbones" of TxDOT’s funding over the years has been constitutional language flowing money to the agency. The flow is less than it used to be, Nichols said.

He and Carona agreed that TxDOT and the NTTA need to find a way to resolve their impasse on the Texas 161 project. Polunsky said that the Senator was confident that an agreement would be reached. Nichols said that he saw no reason why TxDOT couldn’'t share its valuation methodology with the local tollway authority.

The Legislature set up local tollway authorities specifically to allow local interests to own and control their toll roads, Nichols said. "They should be allowed to build toll roads," he said.

Nichols went on to add that he understood TxDOT’'s position because local authorities have in the past been slow to move on transportation projects. NTTA, for example, chose to pass on the Texas 121 project before entering a bid after the brouhaha erupted over the awarding of a contract this spring to Cintra.

Still, a deal "can be done by tomorrow, if they want to get it done," Nichols said. "I think you have a game of high stakes poker going on up there and the citizens are the ones who are going to lose" if the two sides don'’t agree on something.

Looking at the near term funding situation, voters this month approved $5 billion in bonding authority for TxDOT. Lawmakers, however, did not pass the enabling legislation this session that would allow for those bonds to be sold. The money won'’t be available until lawmakers meet again. With no special sessions looming on the horizon, those bonds most likely won’t be authorized until the 2009 session.

Comptroller Susan Combs has certified $300 million in immediate bonding authority for TxDOT, according to a Combs spokeswoman. The money was authorized through a budget rider penned by Senate Finance Chairman Steve Ogden (R-Bryan).

House Transportation Committee Chairman Mike Krusee (R-Round Rock) was out of town at a transportation conference and not immediately available for comment. A representative for the Lieutenant Governor did not immediately respond to e-mailed requests for comment.

House Speaker Tom Craddick spokeswoman Alexis DeLee said, "We regularly visit with TxDOT and respect the Commission's authority to shift resources to priorities."

© 2007 The Quorum Report:

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North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG) : 'A toll road for SH 161 is the only option.'

Texas Toll Road in Flux

Interagency Dispute Could Halt Big Project


by Richard Williamson
The Bond Buyer
Copyright 2007

DALLAS — An interagency dispute could kill one of the largest toll projects in north Texas, as state transit officials warn of dramatic cutbacks in new construction.

Facing immediate peril is the $1 billion extension of State Highway 161 between Dallas and Fort Worth as a turnpike under the supervision of the North Texas Tollway Authority.

To build SH 161 as a high-speed tollway with access roads, the NTTA and the Texas Department of Transportation have to agree on terms.

At last week’s meeting of the Texas Transportation Commission, which oversees TxDOT, chairman Ric Williamson gave the NTTA a Dec. 21 deadline for reaching agreement with TxDOT engineers. Without an agreement, plans for a tollway would die, he said.

NTTA officials said there were too many issues to resolve to reach agreement by that date.

The pressure to reach an agreement comes as the NTTA develops financing and construction plans for the largest toll project in Texas, the $5 billion State Highway 121 north of Dallas. The authority today is scheduled to issue up to $3.75 billion of bond anticipation notes to provide an upfront payment to regional governments for the right to build SH 121.

While SH 121 is in a developing area of Collin and Denton counties surrounded by vacant land, SH 161 runs through some of the most heavily developed areas of Dallas and Tarrant counties, including the suburbs of Irving, Grand Prairie, and Arlington.

SH 161 is expected to be a major thoroughfare linking the affluent northern suburbs of Dallas to the area near the Dallas Cowboys’ new stadium under construction in Arlington to the south. Currently, SH 161 reaches only as far as U.S. 183 in Irving, site of the Cowboys’ current Texas Stadium several miles north of the Arlington site. The Cowboys begin play at the new stadium in 2009 and will host the 2011 Super Bowl.

If it is not built as a toll road, the SH 161 expansion could go forward as freeway financed by bonds backed by gas-tax revenues.

“On the surface, that sounds fine,” said Lara Rodriguez, spokeswoman for the North Central Texas Council of Governments. “But if it is built as a gas-tax road, that takes away from other projects in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and that would be a huge blow to transportation projects in the region. A toll road is really the only option.”

The state has no money to spend on SH 161 and would have to use $600 million from the $3.3 billion up-front payment that the NTTA is paying to the Regional Transportation Commission for the right to build SH 121, Williamson said.

“We have 90% of the engineering plans ready and are ready to proceed as early as next summer,” said TxDOT spokesman Bill Compton.

Local governments in the region have already begun clamoring for a share of the upfront payment for local projects.

Under SB 792, signed into law by Gov. Rick Perry last summer, regional toll authorities have first rights to toll projects. But if they cannot reach agreement, TxDOT has the right to build the road itself.

The dispute between TxDOT and the NTTA involves a market valuation process mandated by SB 792. SH 161 is seen as the first test of that process.

Under the new law, the two agencies have to agree on terms for determining the value of a proposed toll project. The actual study would be conducted by a third party. But reaching an agreement on the valuation is potentially time consuming.

In order to shape the valuation, the NTTA says it needs access to TxDOT’s software for the complex calculations over a 50-year timeframe. TxDOT regional engineer Bill Hale said the software is proprietary and not open to the NTTA’s inspection.

At last week’s TTC meeting, TxDOT deputy executive director Steve Simmons outlined ideas for spending reductions to meet budget constraints, including cutting consulting engineering budget by 57%, or about $250 million.

Another possibility is trimming the budget for right-of-way purchases from $500 million to $275 million or reducing the agency’s budget by half in fiscal 2009.

Despite the availability of more than $9 billion through two new debt funds and a $3.3 billion check soon to come from the North Texas Tollway Authority, the agency is barely meeting its daily and monthly cash-flow needs.

© 2007 The Bond Buyer:

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